Responsible for the saying ‘follow your bliss,’ famous author/academic Joseph Campbell less famously once wrote; ‘money is congealed energy.’
Campbell grew up in New York in the early 1900s, a mere boy of 14 when Wall Street first overtook London as the world’s global financial centre. Despite this and despite growing up in an upper-middle class family, Campbell’s money relationship is contrary to what you might expect.
His life largely followed the archetype of an artist, albeit a privileged one. He once vowed never to do anything for money, believing anyone who worked for money to be a fool. Campbell lost thousands of dollars in the Wall Street crash of 1929, a lot for the time. For the next 5 years of his life, he earnt nothing - zero, zilch. He held those whose business was in making money, money managers and the like, in relative disdain.
Fortunately for him, Campbell found a generous patron in the Bollingen Foundation, who helped publish his famous book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in 1949. Fast forward 62 years and Time Magazine voted Campbell’s book as one of the 100 best and most influential non-fiction books of all time - it is said to have inspired Star Wars and the Matrix.
Once in possession of a lot of money, Campbell changed his tune on money managers:
‘Now that I have made money...I've had to be in touch with people whose business is money...and I've had an interesting and surprising experience: I've met some magnificent people.’
Surprising? Statistically its plausible that there was at least one good person on Wall Street in the early 1900s, no?
Anyway. He ventures on, in Reflections on The Art of Living, to say:
‘Money is congealed energy, and releasing it, releases life possibilities... Money experienced as life energy is indeed a meditation, and letting it flow out instead of hoarding it is a mode of participation in the life of others.’
It’s probable that Campbell was referring to the support of the Bollingen Foundation here. Their patronage was generous, funding his work, travels, and the publishing of his first book over many years. It’s hard to say whether we would have The Hero with A Thousand Faces without them, Campbell was an early promoter of pursuing your life’s work, but, man’s gotta eat.
So what does it mean to consider money as congealed energy, and is it even a relevant money relationship to hold today?
Most physics textbooks define energy as the ‘capacity to do work’, where work is the application of a force to move something in the direction of the force. This definition is contested. But if we take this definition at face value, money appears to loosely fit the bill.
We have designed our society so that the effort we expend (through various forms of energy) is rewarded with money. We could say our energy is converted to money in this process. When stored in the bank, money acts much like a battery. The energy is there and ready to go, and will stay there unless we channel it elsewhere. Or, unless a force outside of our control (say, a banking collapse), channels it elsewhere. Regardless, the capacity is there. Over time, batteries lose their capacity. The laptop that can only ever be used while plugged in has batteries at reduced capacity. Similarly, stored money loses capacity when inflation (rising prices) decreases the value of cash.
Money certainly appears to meet this definition of energy, at least if we don’t dig too deep. Where it falls down and where we won’t cover here is largely thanks to the beast that is our complex, leveraged, financial system. But on a practical level, when we make purchasing, philanthropic and some investing decisions; considering money as energy can help us with our values alignment.
One barrier to the advancement of the effective altruism movement is that we tend to approach generosity and ‘doing good’ with a personal bent - we (understandably) want to see our money going to causes we care deeply about. Our psychological makeup means we’re much more likely to care deeply about causes when they are presented to us as emotional appeals, say, as a plea from a child living in abject poverty, rather than as a rational justification to donate to a particular cause based on their evidence of impact on lives and livelihoods. This is a problem when scarce funds allocated to social impact go to interventions that aren’t having much positive impact, or even a negative impact, but are good at storytelling. A well-known example is the playpump. So, if we believe in effective altruism, and instead consider a donation as injecting energy into the movement and advancement of those values, and as a way to participate in the lives of others, then that could solve our personal meaning conundrum.
NB: Effective Altruism (EA) has its own criticisms, largely that it tends to favour larger and established charities, and that it falls down in cultural and creative causes. This is not an argument for or against EA, but an invitation to explore the concept further as you wish.
Joseph Campbell’s money relationship aside, to consider money as energy can help us to make money decisions that are more aligned with our values. Money as energy is a mode of participating in the lives of others. We can relate well to energy. We’re used to considering our relative tiredness or zest for life as ‘energy levels.’ Where are you investing your energy?